As animals, each of us requires a certain amount of energy every day in the form of food. The energy we take in is budgeted, so much goes for basic maintenance of metabolism, so much to repair damaged parts, so much to drive our muscles and brain to do work. We have other nutritional requirements as well, of course. We need water. We also need raw materials with which to do the work of repair and, while we are growing, to produce new biomass.
In my Nov. 24th blog, "Once again into the energy quagmire", I explained the relationship that we humans have with the sun and our fossil fuels. Today we get energy subsidies to do incredible amounts of work for us by incredible machines. We've replaced hunting and gathering with agribusiness with tractors, combines, etc, walking and running with automobiles, carrying with trucks, sitting on rocks with machines that stamp out chairs, and on and on. We can even fly now.
And all of that power is virtually invisible to us. Unless we work in a machine shop, or a paper mill, or such, we don't routinely see the application of tremendous power to do massive amounts of work. Sitting in our family rooms, watching the SuperBowl on the high definition, wide screen TV, we don't really get a sense of just how much energy we are surrounded by. So here is a visual way of thinking about our situation, at least in the developed world. The figure below is just a rough cut at the idea of an energy cocoon. Actually it represents a series of concentric shells wrapping us in modern life.
The inner most shell represent our more immediate basic needs. Energy flows to providing the basic necessities. What we don't see is that more often these days these necessities are met by not-so-basic provisions. Houses are huge, foods are shipped from 1,000 miles away, and clothing from even further. Next out are things like the stuff it takes to let you do your job, desk, computer, etc. And of course there is your car or SUV (I ride a Honda Rebel motorcycle to work - 75mpg). Don't get me started on entertainment. I like a movie, esp. on DVD (don't get cable TV) on a 36 inch screen from the age of troglodytes. But our entertainment today include spectacles like the SuperBowl, NASCAR, and endless seasons of mindless 'reality' shows. Entertainment is meant to rejuvenate the mind and participative sports help keep the body strong. But off-roading? All that does is destroy the wilderness so someone can whoop it up — don't forget the beer.
The third shell out represent necessities made necessary by living in a complex modern society. The organization structure refers to the buildings, supplies, bosses and janitors needed for you to do your job. The others, like protection (army, police, firemen, etc.) are more diffuse throughout our culture.
The outer shell represents our society's environment, the natural world that supplies us with wildernesses, air, water, what we call Nature. The availability of clean drinking water, clean air, etc. are the results of natural processes that require energy from sunlight to grow trees, evaporate sea water, and dispose of our wastes. Note that the only other real use of current sunlight is our agriculture, growing our crops so that we have food for energy. (Hydroelectric power is technically a result of solar energy evaporating low-lying water and depositing it in the mountains as rain, but it represents a small fraction of our total energy inputs.)
Everything else is run by fossil fuels with minor contributions from nuclear and hydroelectric. Alternative sources that do employ current solar, such as solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, and wind are still extremely small as contributors to total energy and unless they are developed rapidly they will forever be trailing fossil fuels as the demand for energy presumably grows. I say presumably because this is the classic presumption of classical economists, but that is another story. The point here is that everything that you rely on, all of the services and products that you 'need', form these concentric shells around you and you are totally dependent on everything working according to plan. What happens if these shells cannot get the energy they need to operate? What do you do?
Most people (maybe not you dear reader) take all of this for granted. They also take for granted that the energy will just be there when they need it. The food will be on the shelves of the local grocer just like always. The gasoline will be in the pumps at the local gas station like always. The firemen will come if there is an emergency just like always. What could go wrong?
You are wrapped in a thick protective cocoon of energy and work that keeps you safe, warm, fed, and mindlessly entertained. And it uses a lot of energy just to keep you in that state. To put this into some kind of perspective Buckminster Fuller conceived of the idea of an energy slave, or the amount of energy that a human slave would use up work for you. I think he wanted to attach a negative connotation (slavery) to impart the notion that we should be more conservative in our use of energy, but that is speculation on my part. The question is how many slaves would we have to own in order to get the same level of service that is represented by the huge amount of energy that we get from this energy cocoon? Jean-Marc Jancovici has estimated that the average European uses about 100 energy slaves to keep them alive and functioning. Americans use nearly twice as many! Imagine, you are served by 200 slaves doing your bidding. This doesn't count the services from nature, of course. To have the world we have in the way it has been for millions of years making us possible, it has taken a mind-boggling amount of energy. Billions of energy slaves have shaped our world. And we are in the process of destroying some of that world in order to get these shells of the cocoon just the way we want them. It's a trade-off. Nature or TVs. Nature or wars to protect your access to oil. You choose.
Well, if there were only a small number of humans, it would be possible for everyone to have an adequate cocoon without destroying the world. As we get into Global Population Speak Out month it is something to think about.